Building a Base Through Tenant Unionizing

By Chris E. and Mike L., Boston Refoundation

Like nearly every other American city, Boston is facing a housing crisis. Rents are on the rise across the Greater Boston area, and processes of development and redevelopment displace longtime residents and restrict the population of ever-growing parts of the city to an ever-shrinking class of bourgeois and petty bourgeois residents. The brunt of this violence falls on working-class people of color in communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park, Mattapan, East Boston, as well as towns outside the city, such as Brockton, Randolph, and Lawrence.

In these communities, landlords take advantage of speculation in the real estate market to extract increasingly exorbitant rents, sometimes with increases of hundreds of dollars at once. At the same time, they neglect their buildings—often on purpose, with an eye toward selling to investors—and evict tenants freely for minor offenses or capricious reasons. Worse, developers, landlords, and investors weaponize mass eviction to clear out a building before or after a sale, usually in preparation for redevelopment or another sale, evicting dozens of people at once with little to no notice without any regard for the human impact and with concern only for the profit they can make. In this environment, precarity in housing is the norm, and homelessness is the devastating result for thousands of people who do not have the resources to pay rent or find housing on short notice after an eviction.

As socialists, we must understand the local, national, and international housing crisis as the natural result of a system of housing-for-profit, housing as a commodity, housing under a capitalist mode of production. The rapidity with which Boston has developed, with whole neighborhood blocks being evicted and demolished sometimes in the span of months—for example, CLVU organizers have encountered this horrifying phenomenon in East Boston—is indicative of capital’s insatiable drive to exploit new markets for greater profit. Landlords, developers, and property managers do not perform their functions for any reason other than profit. The unfairness of landlordism is incredibly glaring, as buildings are often inherited directly, and in many cases the upkeep of the buildings falls to the tenants themselves.

A profound illustration of the relationship between capitalism and the housing crisis is that luxury housing continues to be built and remain empty, held as commodities by developers, investors, or absentee owners, while homelessness is rampant and working-class people struggle to find housing. As socialists, it is our duty to end this system of commodified housing and  instead assert that housing is a human right, in practice as well as in words. We cannot achieve the momentous goal of building a system of housing that meets the needs of all by collaborating with capitalists—the landlords, developers, and property managers who exploit tenants and communities for profit.

We understand that the relationship between landlords and working-class people, tenants and homeless, is one of class conflict: a zero-sum game between workers’ need for housing and capital’s desire for profit. While this conflict may not have the special place at the site of production as the conflict between labor and bosses, it is a site for militant class struggle. We in Boston Refoundation believe that Boston DSA should pursue the formation of tenant unions as a strategy for building working-class struggle around housing, reducing isolation among community members, and creating new socialists in the long term.

Since July 2017, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) has been working with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), a tenant organization comprised of working-class people across Greater Boston. CLVU organizes tenants, as well as foreclosed homeowners, against eviction, rent increases, and terrible building conditions using what they call the sword and shield: the shield for legal defense, and the sword for direct action. Their base comes primarily from the working-class communities of color most affected by eviction and rent increases. CLVU intentionally cultivates a sense of ownership among tenants from the first time they show up to a meeting, encouraging them to see themselves as members of the organization rather than people helped by it, telling them “if you fight, we’ll fight with you.”

Many of the organization’s strongest leaders, both members and staff organizers, first came to it as tenants facing eviction and stayed to fight with others. Some tenants currently fighting with CLVU are people who had organized a union and won a contract with CLVU five or ten years before, received evictions or rent increases after the expiration of the contract or after a sale, and returned to CLVU to organize again. Others have been resisting rent increases or evictions for years—some for nearly a decade. This type of militant struggle is made possible because CLVU brings tenants out of the shame and isolation of eviction and into community and solidarity with other people fighting the same injustices. CLVU intentionally develops their political leadership and their willingness to see themselves as capable of fighting, and shows them that through fighting they can achieve the material victory of staying in their homes. We view this model as one that Boston DSA should learn from and emulate as we attempt to develop our capacity to organize tenants. Essentially, CLVU already accomplishes what we and many other DSA chapters would like to do in our housing work: build a base of working-class leaders ready and able to fight capital and win.

Since we began working with CLVU last July, our work has consisted mostly of canvassing buildings identified by CLVU—both less organized buildings in existing struggles and new buildings we’re exploring for the first time. The Housing Working Group has grown a small team of people who engage in this work regularly, with several other members who may have been once or twice. We’ve learned a lot about how to talk to tenants about their material issues, while also being respectful of the sensitivity of those conversations and tenants’ agency in responding to them. In the immediate future, we should work to improve our follow-up with tenants, getting them interested in coming to a Tuesday CLVU meeting or helping them organize a building meeting with their neighbors. In February, we took a first step in this direction by providing ride support for a disabled tenant we’d met canvassing to CLVU’s weekly meeting. We should expand this sort of work wherever we find tenants willing to organize with us.

 

We can and should work toward this goal by continuing our existing work with CLVU and by exploring new opportunities that we discover on our own. For the former, we can continue our regular canvassing at places CLVU is looking to organize and actively work to improve our follow-up with tenants, finding ways to connect with tenants around material issues and coming to shared understandings about how we can work together. For the latter, we can explore a variety of strategies to identify targets where people may be experiencing material conditions that threaten their housing—eviction, rent increases, and gentrification, among others—and figure out how to organize with tenants around those problems. Both approaches will include a continued close relationship with CLVU while also allowing us to develop our skills as socialist organizers and become more capable and independent in our tenant organizing. Very few DSA chapters have an already-existing tenant organization like City Life in their regions; we are lucky to have them as a coalition partner and owe them a great deal for our progress so far. Our organizing, whether initiated by CLVU or by us, should bring tenants into CLVU’s movement. We do not have the capacity to immediately create the kind of solidarity and social support among tenants that CLVU provides, nor do we have the same roots they do in the communities most affected by eviction and displacement. Furthermore, CLVU has legal resources that we cannot provide tenants on our own. As we organize more effectively over time and begin to help tenants win their fights, we will increase our capacity to build these types of social and political organization among tenants in the long term.

There are a number of routes we could explore to developing our own tenant organizing project, but our adaptation of Metro DC DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords project (SOS) currently stands out as one of the most promising. Stomp Out Slumlords has provided an inspiring example of a DSA chapter trying a creative, politically informed strategy to organize with tenants against eviction. HWG members have been developing an approach based on insights from the Stomp Out Slumlords project—namely, the idea of using publicly available information from the court system to reach tenants facing eviction—to expand our current work within the context of CLVU. Our approach merges our current tenant unionizing effort within Stomp Out Slumlords’s novel approach to finding and identifying tenants willing to organize. Interestingly, our DC comrades reported in their April update that their work on Stomp Out Slumlords has naturally gravitated toward building-level organizing with a focus on base building, much more similar to our approach and CLVU’s than to the initial SOS program. The Housing Working Group has now used this method twice since we started on May 5, and we are working to evaluate and improve it going forward. We invite any interested comrades to reach out to HWG to get involved.

We should also be on the lookout for housing issues around evictions, such as rent increases, or development around the Boston area in general, especially in regions that may not already be organized by CLVU or a similar organization. We should develop class consciousness among our own membership around their class position as tenants, encourage them to organize their own buildings if they wish to do so, and support them in those efforts by offering organizing trainings and labor.

For all of this work, and especially the last point, we must consider robust political education a necessary component of our work and meaningfully implement that commitment in practice. We must approach all of it with a clearly socialist understanding of what we mean when we say housing is a human right. We will not succeed in organizing with tenants if we are not clear that we are for tenants and against landlords and developers.

We need to take care not to fall prey to working toward capitalist reforms, an ever-present trap especially in the arena of housing. Even the most radical orgs can become co-opted by the Massachusetts Democratic establishment machine, and given the nature of the systems we work in, it may be tempting to make concessions to capital to obtain short-term gains. In particular, the framework of “affordable housing” dominates the progressive housing discourse, but this framework does nothing to strengthen the working class. “Affordable” is never accurately defined within any reasonable understanding of the word, and landlords frequently receive some benefit in return for meeting very low numbers of these units. Affordable housing assumes both that rent will always be extracted from workers’ wages and that the vast majority of housing units will be, by definition, unaffordable. Without a socialist vision and strategy that is grounded in not just a Marxist understanding of the capital and class conflict surrounding housing, but also in a knowledge of successfully implemented socialist housing throughout history, or in promising theoretical models from other Marxist groups and thinkers, we will only be temporarily stemming the tide of late-stage capitalist exterminism.

The proposed PEWG/HWG collaboration, a four-part series aimed at combining theory and praxis for socialist housing, is an exciting first step toward a broader conversation around what socialist housing means and how we can organize with and as tenants. This series, and subsequent events like it, should contribute to the development of class consciousness as tenants among our membership and open new possibilities for organizing from within DSA. In the medium to long term, as we improve our own skills as tenant organizers, we should offer deeper and more robust training for our members to organize their buildings.

Political education events, like the PEWG/HWG collaboration, will introduce more members to the basic ideas of socialist housing and tenant organizing and give them an accessible way to approach that work themselves. If done well, these projects will increase our capacity both by improving the quality of our work and by drawing more of our members to tenant organizing projects. Our political education must give us space to reflect critically on our organizing methods to ensure that they are effective. We must examine our external organizing to ensure that we do not take paternalistic attitudes into our work with tenants or choose methods of struggle for them, especially when tenants are more exploited than our organizers along lines of race, gender, class, or disability. Our internal organizing must value the contributions and labor of all our comrades and not overly rely on methods like canvassing that systematically exclude some of our comrades.

Boston Refoundation believes that tenant unionizing is a promising site for militant class struggle in our area. By applying and expanding the lessons the Housing Working Group has learned so far in our work with CLVU, we can increase our capacity to organize around tenant issues and support tenants in their struggles for our shared goal: housing as a human right. If we can help tenants win material victories in these fights, we will create relationships with working-class leaders across the Greater Boston area—people with whom we can organize in the future around issues other than housing. Building those relationships through the work of tenant unionizing in the long term will make projects like the Mass Against HP BDS campaign and the proposed Prison Abolition project to get police out of Boston public schools more imminently possible for Boston DSA to organize around. It will open up new frontiers for direct service and mutual aid projects that are useful and possibly reciprocal. We believe that we must pursue these projects of organizing and unionizing tenants both because it is right to stand in solidarity with tenants in their fights and because it is necessary to achieve our ultimate goal: uniting the working class to win socialism.

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